What do Food Processing Occupations Do

Food Processing Occupations

Food processing occupations include many different types of workers who process raw food products into the finished goods sold by grocers, wholesalers, restaurants, or institutional food services. These workers perform a variety of tasks and are responsible for producing many of the food products found in every household. Some of these workers are bakers, others slaughter or process meat, and still others operate food processing equipment.

Bakers mix and bake ingredients according to recipes to produce varying types and quantities of breads, pastries, and other baked goods. Bakers commonly are employed in commercial bakeries that distribute breads and pastries through established wholesale and retail outlets, mail order, or manufacturers' outlets. In these manufacturing facilities, bakers produce mostly standardized baked goods in large quantities, using high-volume mixing machines, ovens, and other equipment. Grocery stores and specialty shops produce smaller quantities of breads, pastries, and other baked goods for consumption on their premises or for sale as specialty baked goods. Although the quantities prepared and sold in these stores are often small, they often come in a wide variety of flavors and sizes.

Other food processing workers convert animal carcasses into manageable pieces of meat, known as boxed meat or case-ready meat, suitable for sale to wholesalers and retailers. The nature of their jobs varies significantly depending on the stage of the process in which they are involved. In animal slaughtering and processing plants, slaughterers and meat packers slaughter cattle, hogs, and sheep, and cut carcasses into large wholesale cuts, such as rounds, loins, ribs, tenders, and chucks, to facilitate the handling, distribution, marketing, and sale of meat. In most plants, some slaughterers and meat packers further process the large parts into case-ready cuts that are ready for retail stores. Retailers and grocers increasingly prefer such prepackaged meat products because a butcher isn't needed to further portion the cuts for sale. Slaughterers and meat packers also produce hamburger meat and meat trimmings, and prepare sausages, luncheon meats, and other fabricated meat products. They usually work on assembly lines, with each individual responsible for only a few of the many cuts needed to process a carcass. Depending on the type of cut, these workers use knives; cleavers; meat saws; bandsaws; or other potentially dangerous equipment.

Poultry cutters and trimmers slaughter and cut up chickens, turkeys, and other types of poultry. Although the packaging end of the poultry processing industry is becoming increasingly automated, many jobs, such as slaughtering, trimming, and deboning, are still done manually. Most poultry cutters and trimmers perform routine cuts on poultry as it moves along production lines.

Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers also prepare ready-to-cook foods, often at processing plants, but increasingly at grocery and specialty food stores. This preparation often entails filleting meat, poultry, or fish; cutting it into bite-sized pieces or tenders; preparing and adding vegetables; and applying sauces and flavorings, marinades, or breading. These case-ready products are gaining in popularity as they offer quick and easy preparation for consumers while, in many cases, also offering healthier options.

Manufacturing and retail establishments are both likely to employ fish cutters and trimmers, also called fish cleaners. These workers primarily scale, cut, and dress fish by removing the head, scales, and other inedible portions and then cut the fish into steaks or fillets. In retail markets, these workers also may wait on customers and clean fish to order. Some fish processing is done aboard ships where fish can be caught, processed, and often flash frozen to preserve freshness.

Butchers and meat cutters generally process meat at later stages of production, although some are employed at meat processing plants. Most work for grocery stores, wholesale establishments that supply meat to restaurants, or institutional food service facilities that separate wholesale cuts of meat into retail cuts or smaller pieces, known as primals. These butchers cut meat into steaks and chops, shape and tie roasts, and grind beef for sale as chopped meat. Boneless cuts are prepared using knives, slicers, or power cutters, while bandsaws and cleavers are required to cut bone-in pieces of meat. Butchers and meat cutters in retail food stores also may weigh, wrap, and label the cuts of meat; arrange them in refrigerated cases for display; and prepare special cuts to fill orders by customers.

Others who work in food processing include food batchmakers, who set up and operate equipment that mixes, blends, or cooks ingredients used in the manufacture of food products according to formulas or recipes; food cooking machine operators and tenders, who operate or tend cooking equipment, such as steam-cooking vats, deep-fry cookers, pressure cookers, kettles, and boilers to prepare a wide range of cooked food products, and food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders, who use equipment to reduce the moisture content of food or tobacco products or to prepare food for canning. The machines they use include hearth ovens, kiln driers, roasters, char kilns, steam ovens, and vacuum drying equipment. These workers monitor equipment for temperature, humidity, or other factors and make the appropriate adjustments to ensure proper cooking and processing.

All workers who work with food must regularly clean and sanitize utensils, work surfaces, and equipment used to process food to comply with health and sanitation guidelines to prevent the spread of disease.

Work Environment

Food and tobacco processing workers held about 250,100 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up food and tobacco processing workers was distributed as follows:

  1. Food batchmakers - 159,300
  2. Food processing workers, all other - 45,000
  3. Food cooking machine operators and tenders - 26,800
  4. Food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders - 19,000

The largest employers of food and tobacco processing workers were as follows:

  • Food manufacturing - 74%
  • Employment services - 6%
  • Food and beverage stores - 5%

Food manufacturing facilities are typically large, open-floor areas with loud machinery. When operating cooking equipment, workers are frequently exposed to high temperatures. When working with goods that need to be refrigerated or frozen, they may be exposed to cold temperatures for long periods.

Depending on the type of food being processed, workers may be required to wear ear protection to guard against hearing loss in noisy facilities. They also may wear masks, hairnets, or gloves to prevent product contamination.

Workers usually stand during their shifts while tending machines or observing the production process. Loading, unloading, or cleaning equipment may require lifting, bending, and reaching.

Injuries and Illnesses                         

Food processing workers, all other, have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. ("All other" titles represent occupations with a wide range of characteristics that do not fit into any of the other detailed occupations.) Working around hot liquids or machinery that cuts or presses can be dangerous. Common injuries include cuts or result from slips and falls.. To reduce the risks of injuries, workers are required to wear protective clothing and nonslip shoes.

Work Schedules

Most food processing equipment workers are employed full time; part-time work may be common for food cooking machine operators and tenders. Because of production schedules, shift work is common and may include early mornings, evenings, or nights.

Some food processing positions are seasonal.

Education & Training Required

Bakers need to become skilled in baking, icing, and decorating. They often start their careers as apprentices or trainees. Apprentice bakers usually start in craft bakeries, while trainees usually begin in store bakeries, such as those in supermarkets. Many apprentice bakers participate in correspondence study and may work towards a certificate in baking.

The skills needed to be a baker are often underestimated. Bakers need to learn how to combine ingredients and to learn how ingredients are affected by heat. They need to learn how to operate and maintain a range of equipment used in the production process. Courses in nutrition are helpful for those selling baked goods or developing new recipes. If running a small business, they need to know how to operate a business. All bakers must follow government health and sanitation regulations.

Most butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers acquire their skills through on-the-job training programs. The length of training varies significantly. Simple cutting operations require a few days to learn, while more complicated tasks, such as eviscerating slaughtered animals, generally require several months of training. The training period for highly skilled butchers at the retail level may be 1 or 2 years.

Generally, trainees begin by doing less difficult jobs, such as making simple cuts or removing bones. Under the guidance of experienced workers, trainees learn the proper use and care of tools and equipment, while also learning how to prepare various cuts of meat. After demonstrating skill with various meat cutting tools, trainees learn to divide carcasses into wholesale cuts and wholesale cuts into retail and individual portions. Trainees also may learn to roll and tie roasts, prepare sausage, and cure meat. Those employed in retail food establishments often are taught to perform basic business operations, such as inventory control, meat buying, and recordkeeping. In addition, growing concern about food-borne pathogens in meats has led employers to offer numerous safety seminars and extensive training in food safety to employees.

On-the-job training is common among food machine operators and tenders. They learn to run the different types of equipment by watching and helping other workers. Training can last anywhere from a month to a year, depending on the complexity of the tasks and the number of products involved. A degree in an appropriate area—dairy processing for those working in dairy product operations, for example—is helpful for advancement to a lead worker or a supervisory role. Most food batchmakers participate in on-the-job training, usually from about a month to a year. Some food batchmakers learn their trade through an approved apprenticeship program.

Other Skills Required

Bakers need to be able to follow instructions, have an eye for detail, and communicate well with others. Meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers need manual dexterity, good depth perception, color discrimination, and good hand-eye coordination. They also need physical strength to lift and move heavy pieces of meat. Butchers and fish cleaners who wait on customers should have a pleasant personality, a neat appearance, and the ability to communicate clearly. In some States, a health certificate is required for employment.

How to Advance

Bakers have the option of obtaining certification through the Retail Bakers of America. While not mandatory, obtaining certification assures the public and prospective employers that the baker has sufficient skills and knowledge to work at a retail baking establishment.

The Retail Bakers of America offers certification for four levels of competence with a focus on several broad areas, including baking sanitation, management, retail sales, and staff training. Those who wish to become certified must satisfy a combination of education and experience requirements prior to taking an examination. The education and experience requirements vary by the level of certification desired. For example, a certified journey baker requires no formal education but a minimum of 1 year of work experience. By contrast, a certified master baker must have earned the certified baker designation, and must have completed 30 hours of sanitation coursework approved by a culinary school or government agency, 30 hours of professional development courses or workshops, and a minimum of 8 years of commercial or retail baking experience.

Food processing workers in retail or wholesale establishments may progress to supervisory jobs, such as department managers or team leaders in supermarkets. A few of these workers may become buyers for wholesalers or supermarket chains. Some food processing workers go on to open their own markets or bakeries. In processing plants, workers may advance to supervisory positions or become team leaders.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of food processing equipment workers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations.

Despite limited employment growth, about 32,600 openings for food processing equipment workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.


Population growth and continuing consumer preference for convenience foods are expected to drive the demand for food, which will in turn require more food processing equipment workers to produce it. However, food manufacturing companies continue to pursue more automation in processing to raise productivity. For example, they use equipment that automatically weighs and mixes ingredients, requiring fewer processing workers. As these companies streamline production processes and implement more automation, they will need fewer workers to operate machines, and this may constrain occupational growth.


The median annual wage for food processing equipment workers was $35,430 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,790, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $47,700.

Median annual wages for food processing equipment workers in May 2021 were as follows:

  • Food cooking machine operators and tenders - $35,890
  • Food batchmakers - $35,780
  • Food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders - $35,480
  • Food processing workers, all other - $31,890 

In May 2021, the median annual wages for food and tobacco processing workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

  • Food manufacturing - $36,260
  • Food and beverage stores - $30,140
  • Employment services - $29,560

Most food processing equipment workers are employed full time; part-time work may be common for food cooking machine operators and tenders. Because of production schedules, shift work is common and may include early mornings, evenings, or nights.

Some food processing positions are seasonal.

Academic Programs of Interest

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Culinary Arts
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